Governments wield an extensive range of powers over public funds, information and the freedoms of those subject to their authority. In liberal democracies such as Australia, fundamental norms have developed to ensure that such powers are not abused and are exercised according to democratic precepts.
Some of these norms are enshrined in law, notably, through the Constitution; others are embodied in political tradition and practice. These political norms are no less important than legal norms — they give rise to what can be described as the "political constitution".
In a relatively short space of time, the Abbott government has, through various actions, undermined Australia’s political constitution.
The tragic death of Reza Barati at the Manus Island detention centre highlights the secrecy with which Australia’s offshore detention centres are operated: journalists are barred from accessing these centres and government tightly controls what information is disclosed.
A clear casualty of this "closed book" approach is the principle of open government, which insists that government be transparent in its actions, particularly when coercive powers are exercised — as in the case of the detention of asylum seekers.
Ironically, the government has shown remarkable alacrity in disclosing cabinet documents to the Royal Commission inquiring into the Rudd Government’s home insulation scheme. In jeopardy here is the convention of cabinet confidentiality.
As an exception to the principle of open government, cabinet confidentiality enables cabinet deliberations to be free and vigorous. It is an essential means of good governance that allows a full range of options to be canvassed prior to cabinet making a decision.
Cabinet secrecy is also vital to democratic accountability in Westminster systems like Australia. It underpins the principle of collective cabinet responsibility: whatever differences are aired in cabinet discussions, the cabinet as a whole is responsible for its decisions.
Such collective responsibility, in turn, allows the electorate to properly hold the government accountable. The alternative, where individual cabinet members can disown cabinet decisions, inevitably leads to blurred lines of accountability, offering governments ample scope to avoid taking responsibility.
Actions by the Abbott government in the SPC episode have separately inflicted damage on democratic accountability — the imperative that elected governments provide a truthful account of their actions so that they can be held accountable by the electorate.
There have been allegations by union officials, corroborated by other industry sources, that the government insisted as a condition of providing SPC with $25 million in public funds that its workers be moved from its enterprise agreement onto the industry award. This move would have resulted in pay cuts of $20,000 to $30,000 for SPC workers, many of whom currently earn around $50,000 per annum.
To date, however, the government has neither confirmed nor denied these allegations with Industry Minister, Ian MacFarlane, refusing to directly address them.
This strategy of evasion constitutes a failure of accountability. The government’s decision on the SPC subsidy was a significant one with thousands of jobs in Shepparton on the line. The public, especially those in the Goulburn Valley, are entitled to a full account of the government’s actions, not stone-walling.
This is especially because, if the allegations are true, it will put the lie to one of the key justifications given by the Prime Minister for refusing the SPC subsidy — that workplace restructuring is led by business and not by government.
A lesser-known episode also points to the Abbott Government’s disregard for Australia’s political constitution. Free and fair elections are central to this country’s democratic processes: they are the key mechanism of democratic accountability; they underpin the legitimacy of elected governments; it is such elections that allow governments to credibly claim that they have the mandate to govern.
Late last year, however, The Australian reported that the government, faced with the prospect of a fresh Senate poll in WA, considered withholding public funding for parties and candidates provided under electoral laws. This would have frightened off independent and minor party candidates and secured a financial advantage for the WA Liberals, who could continue to rely on the funds they had amassed from their donors.
The mere fact withdrawal of election funding — an illegal act — was contemplated is disturbing. It suggests that there are some in the Abbott Government willing to abuse the power of incumbency to tilt the electoral system in its favour; with such a mind-set, the integrity of elections is most definitely imperilled.
The Abbott Government touts itself as a conservative government. But a government that shows disrespect for the key principles of democratic government is nothing of that kind.
Genuinely conservative governments would seek to preserve political traditions even when they prove to be cumbersome and inconvenient; they would recognise that there are rules of the political game — foundations of a sustainable democracy — that all political parties should abide by.
Is the Abbott Government then a radical government? This would imply that its actions undermining Australia’s political constitution are driven by a coherent ideological agenda. There is little evidence to that effect.
Perhaps the baser motives of partisan advantage and aggrandisement of power provide better explanations. If so, the danger to our democratic system is clear and present.
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